ROCKINGHAM — Some people choose to celebrate their birthdays by spending time with family and friends — others, like Allen Salyer and Robert Toney, opt to experience the thrill of getting behind the wheel of a former NASCAR stock car.
Seat Time Racing School made its return to Rockingham Speedway for the first time in more than 10 years Saturday, offering anyone from racing fans to professional racecar drivers the opportunity to learn how to drive a NASCAR stock car on a NASCAR track.
“We were the first-ever NASCAR driving school,” said Seat Time driving instructor Walt Young. “We’ve got eight NASCAR (stock) cars and a couple of retired NASCAR trucks. We bring them to the race track and teach people how to drive them.”
According to Young, Seat Time used to come to the Speedway 30-40 days per year when the track was in its heyday.
He added that they had local people participate Saturday, as well as people from other states like Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Michigan.
“We heard they were getting ready to have a race out here so we figured it was back in operational status,” Young said. “I thought we’d just give them a call and come out. It was one of the best-selling events we’ve had in a long time. We had a really big turn out and a lot of interest in it.”
For Salyer, he celebrated his 62nd birthday by participating in his 11th time driving with Seat Time. Short-track racing is something he said was on his bucket list, so he started learning the ropes with Seat Time when he was 59.
“I’ve always been a car guy, mechanic, dealership employee,” Salyer said. “I had hot rod cars when I was a teenager.”
Salyer, who came from Calabash, NC, said he was hitting about 130 mph on the track during the 50 laps he had behind the wheel.
“It’s awesome — it’s unbelievable the grip they have,” Salyer said. “I enjoyed it.”
Toney, who came from Nashville, NC, remembers coming to NASCAR races at the Speedway in the late 1980s and 1990s. As a birthday present, Toney’s wife bought him some seat time to ride along with one of the driving instructors on the track.
“I’ve been to a lot of races here,” Toney said. “I wanted to ride but I wanted to go as fast as I could go. I knew if I was driving, I wouldn’t go as fast. I wanted to be beside the wall.”
He said he remembers the somber atmosphere at the Speedway during the Dura-Lube 400 from 2001, which was the first NASCAR race after the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500.
While he was in the car on the track, Toney’s mind flashed back to the races he saw at the Speedway.
“(I remember) Earnhardt and Wallace racing down the backstretch, coming into the turn,” Toney said. “Looking at where I used to sit in the stands, it just brought back a bunch of memories. My biggest thing was, I didn’t realize how tough they have to be to go that many miles on this track. But I had a good driver – he flung me, he did me good.”
Young said the racing students participate in an hour-long class to start the day before they first get behind the wheel, while an instructor rides with them. Then, when the instructor feels they’re ready, the students drive on the track by themselves with the other students.
Emily Gilmette is one of Seat Time’s more advanced driving students. While she was in one car and an instructor was in another car, she practiced advanced racing maneuvers on the track, while taking directions from the instructor through her radio headset.
“You do take a minute on the straightaways just to kind of look around and see the history, especially on the front stretch and the back stretch,” the New Bern resident said. “But otherwise you’re looking for your marks and you’re just out there to run and stay safe going as fast as you can, while…